This action-comedy-romance-nostalgia piece is a movie lover's head-spinning delight, and two hours later you'll barely remember it
Wes Anderson's dazzling new “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is course after course of desserts: marzipans, macarons, crème brûlée, tiramisu and profiteroles, presented with a flourish and served so promptly that you can barely catch your breath between treats. It's not until an hour or two has passed that you realize, for all the wonderful flavors and beautiful plates, that you haven't really eaten anything.
It's a film that could be called reactionary — it's a valentine to aristocratic, pre-WWII Europe as seen through the eyes of a South Asian immigrant — if Anderson weren't such an aggressively apolitical filmmaker. His main agendas seem to be nostalgia and a dislike of authority (tempered by a love of mentors), and both are on full display here.
We begin with a young woman in the modern day visiting the grave of a legendary writer, then we cut to the writer (Tom Wilkinson) being interviewed in 1985 about his novel “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a story he claims not to have invented but to have been told first-hand. This leads us to the 1968 flashback in which the writer (Jude Law) is staying at the titular eastern European establishment, now a Soviet-era shadow of its once-grand self, as a treatment for a strain of neurasthenia known as Scribe's Fever.
Also staying there is legendary millionaire Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who reportedly forfeited much of his fortune to the authorities in return for keeping the hotel. And over a long dinner in an empty dining room, Mr. Moustafa tells the younger Brit his entire story:
In 1932, young Zero (Tony Revolori) was hired as Lobby Boy at the hotel, which brought him under the direct tutelage of legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a loving taskmaster who would become the boy's mentor and friend. Gustave runs an exceedingly tight ship, with one of his weaknesses (or strengths, depending on how you look at it) being his endless affection for the rich, elderly, blonde female guests.
One such conquest, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), passes away in her nearby villa, leaving an invaluable painting to Gustave, much to the chagrin of her nasty-tempered heir Dmitri (Adrien Brody). With the help of her butler, Serge X. (Mathieu Amalric), Gustave and Zero spirit away the painting, but since Madame D. was poisoned, Dmitri — with the help of his terrifying bodyguard Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – frames Gustave for her murder.
It's a plot that accommodates a ski chase, a prison break, assistance from Gustave's fellow concierges in the Society of the Crossed Keys, as well as Zero's budding romance with pastry chef Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). And all along, in the background, we see the subtle wearing away of a society that could maintain something as gloriously excessive as the Grand Budapest Hotel as the clouds of war gather in the distance.
Anderson shoots all of this with gusto, and as ever, his crew — particularly the art directors and set designers, cinematographer Robert Yeoman and composer Alexandre Desplat — are as much the stars of the film as the actors, and they contribute as much wit as Anderson and Hugo Guinness’ screenplay.
The Grand Budapest Hotel itself is perhaps Anderson's biggest and most elaborate toybox to date, and Yeoman's camera zips and climbs and turns around every corner. You can sense Anderson's delight in creating this pink bauble of a 1930s luxury spa, and then turning it into a drab Eastern bloc facility laden with instructional signs and molded orange naugahyde lounge chairs.
Watching “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the kind of wonderfully delirious experience that feels plugged directly into the cerebral cortex of anyone who loves the movies. There's always some new delight, whether it's a set piece to look at or a balalaika composition to listen to or a performance to savor. (Fiennes and Revolori make a great comic duo, but there's not a bum note from this large and talented ensemble, which also includes Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Léa Seydoux, Harvey Keitel and Jeff Goldblum.)
Alas, for all its panache, the film doesn't have a Max Fischer or a Margot Tenenbaum or a Mr. Fox that lingers in the memory. Gustave is a hilarious creation, both dandified and endlessly resourceful, but even though Fiennes makes him a treat to watch, he's too much of a capital-c Character to make the center of this universe.
Seeing “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was one of the most exciting film-watching experiences I've had in months; I just wish remembering it later carried the same resonance.